- Matt Meyers
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As annoying as MLB's postseason ad campaign can be, their point is correct. Because of baseball, October is the month against which all other sporting months should be measured. March Madness? Please.
That being said, this doesn't mean baseball's playoff format is flawless. The current three-division set-up makes the wild card exciting, but it leaves deserving teams out simply because of the division they play in. For example, the Blue Jays are as good or better than every team in the NL save for the Cubs, but they are divisionally-challenged. Meanwhile, there are six NL teams with records as good or better than the Dodgers. Yet Joe Torre and crew are headed to the playoffs while three of those others aren't. The point is this: there will be eight teams in the playoffs, but don't be fooled into thinking they are the best eight.
While abolishing divisions and putting the top four teams from each league in the playoffs would be the most egalitarian way of choosing postseason participants, it's clear that much of the drama created by the current system would vanish. That doesn't mean we can't spice things up with some help form college basketball. That's right, I'm talking about an NIT for MLB.
Before you dismiss this out of hand, please believe me when I tell you that this isn't some pie in the sky suggestion. Well … hey, it would be a lot of fun. Take a look.
THE NEW NIT (aka the NNIT, aka The Double NIT)
THE BASICS: The Double NIT would include the best eight non-playoff teams based on record, regardless of league. If the season ended today, that would leave us with the following octet, in descending order based on record. Pretty solid group, no?
4) Blue Jays
* In another nod to college sports, we would shun MLB's playoff format and go with a College World Series-style double-elimination tournament. As anyone who watches the CWS knows (Fresno State! Are you serious!?) , this is really the most dramatic and cutthroat of all playoff formats, and it would leave us with two pools of four that would look like this:
Blue Jays (4)
If you're not sure how double-elimination works, take a look at this year's bracket from the College World Series.
THE DETAILS (And Advantages)
This tournament might seem a little excessive, but it has practical purpose. Much like the NCAA's NIT, it would provide young players with experience in a competitive environment and it would give fans of a young team a glimpse into the future. The nuts and bolts?
Actual Competition: So that this isn't simply a poor man's playoffs, we've added a little wrinkle geared towards the future. Each team would have a 30-man roster for the event, to allow for extra pitchers. However, half of the players would have to have less than two years of MLB service time and be under the age of 23. This would allow for organizations to pair their top players with their brightest prospects, which would have two positive effects on the club.
1) The experience young players can gain from being around established big leaguers is invaluable.
2) The minor leagues as they are currently constructed are all about individual player development, and not about winning games. As a result, when players get to the majors, they usually haven't played a game where anyone cared about the result since high school or college. The Arizona Fall League is designed as a way to give top prospects a chance to compete against each other, but that is hardly a competitive environment. This tournament would be.
Draft Consequences: To ensure that teams play these games as if they matter, we've added some incentive. As of now, the MLB draft is based on the inverse order of standings. Now we wouldn't want to mess with the order for the 14 teams that missed both postseason tournaments, but we would make this tournament a battle for picks 15-22. As a reward for good player development, the winner of this tournament would get the 15th pick in the draft for every round of the draft. Second place would get the 16th pick and so forth. I know owners want to see their teams develop from within, and this would provide incentive for that. The Brewers currently stand to pick 22nd this year, but winning this tournament would move them up seven slots. In the process, future stars like Alcides Escobar and Angel Salome could cut their teeth alongside Ryan Braun and Corey Hart. They would have played Fall League anyway, right?
Give Spring Training Fans Real Games: Travel is always expensive, so to cut down on that, the top two seeds would host their pools at their spring training facility. This would ensure for good weather, and it would also give fans access to competitive baseball that they don't normally have. The top seed would host the final, which would pit the winners of the two pools in a best-of-three series.
It's Cheap: The biggest gripe you hear about the MLB postseason now is that it isn't fan friendly because of the ticket prices and late start times. The Double NIT would be the opposite of that. Games would be set for prime local time so everyone could enjoy them in their entirety, and good weather would guarantee a pleasant fan experience. MLB could treat this as a goodwill mission, keeping ticket prices at regular spring training rates. The league says it is flush with cash, why not give a little something back here?
The Injury Issue: It's likely that the biggest reason (other than losing money) not to do this tournament is the risk of injury, particularly for pitchers. We all know how valuable pitchers are, and most clubs wouldn't want to use their best pitchers in this environment. It's the same reason teams don't like to send their best pitching prospects to the aforementioned Arizona Fall League. But again, to encourage clubs to participate, we've given them a 30-man roster that will allow for extra arms.
Furthermore, this tournament would be perfect for any pitcher who has worked back from injury but wants some more innings. Guys play winter ball all the time, how is this any different? In fact, teams would be far more likely to let top pitchers participate in this tournament because unlike winter ball, this is a controlled environment. And the bottom line is this: if a team doesn't want a pitcher there, they don't have to put him on the roster.
So let's say you're a fan of the Diamondbacks, and you can't believe your club wasted their hot start. Relax. You can watch Max Scherzer and Jarrod Parker taking on Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter in Double NIT pool play while dreaming about next October. Some teams might still be lukewarm about how much they want to bid on AJ Burnett during free agency, and Burnett could use this opportunity to further enhance his value on the open market. And what better way for a Twins fan to get excited about the next generation than watching Ben Revere leg out a triple off Anibal Sanchez?
This wouldn't be a replacement for the current playoffs, just a nice side dish. It would also make for some heated debate as fans begin to realize that the best eight teams aren't in the playoffs. A perfect topic for a slow day on sports talk radio.
Call me crazy, but I know I'd be watching.
Baseball's postseason often leaves deserving teams out. We have a solution that will work for everybody.